Everyone likes to save on hotels. These strategies get low rates without too much complexity.
16.1 Choose Alternatives to Hotels
Mix and match tactics work great with this line item. If your vacation lasts two weeks, you can stay in hotels for several nights and sleep elsewhere the rest of the time. Hotels are pricey, so the strategy that saves the most is the strategy that avoids them the most. You have many frugal options.
□ 16.1.1 Choose Friends and Family
Although this lodging usually is FREE, remember that fish and guests smell after three days. Break up your visit by staying a couple nights when you first arrive and a couple nights before you leave. In between, bunk elsewhere.
□ 16.1.3 Sleep on Free Couches
Visit CouchSurfing.org, a FREE site which matches people who travel with people who have couches or, in many cases, spare rooms. Read reviews of sleeping quarters and hosts.
□ 16.1.4 Sleep on Less Than Free Couches
AirBNB.com resembles CouchSurfing.org, except that you pay for the lodging. The site now books more room nights than the Hilton Hotel chain and serves more than 8,000 cities. Reviews of rooms and hosts are included. Similar sites provide a similar experience: Roomorama.com and BedandFed.co.uk (Ireland and England only).
□ 16.1.5 Stake Out Campgrounds
Pitch a tent and sleep on rock hard surfaces at rock bottom rates.
□ 16.1.6 Bunk in Cabins
KOA pitches its rustic cabins as falling somewhere between tents and hotels. The lodging is priced accordingly. Visit KOA.com to look and book.
□ 16.1.7 Go to Night School
Dormitories offer good sleeps in campus settings. No online clearinghouses exist, so you have to identify colleges at your destination, call them up, and ask whether they rent.
□ 16.1.8 Visit YMCAs and YMCA Camps
There are 2,600 locations nationwide, but only 130 of them still sport living quarters. Visit YMCA.net to see whether the outpost at your destination offers rooms. Reportedly, it’s fun to stay at the YMCA.
□ 16.1.10 Stay at Bed and Breakfasts
These often provide better values than hotels and you always start the day with a meal. Hence the name. Check out listings at BedandBreakfast.com or in travel guides (which usually review the better B&Bs).
□ 16.1.11 Consider Vacation Rentals
At resorts, book condos or vacation homes. Good sites include: VRBO.com, FlipKey.com, and HomeAway.com. For visits to cities, check out the local Craigslist, which includes a section under “housing” for “vacation rentals.”
□ 16.1.12 Try Group Buynamics
For vacations with friends, rent houses together instead of paying for separate hotel rooms.
CODA: RVs FOR VACATIONS
Once I dreamed of roaming the country for less in a modest motor home. I figured on free overnight stays in Walmart parking lots and inexpensive onboard meals. But when I pulled the numbers together, they proved that the same trips in the Prius would cost much less—even if we stayed at three star hotels and ate at upscale restaurants. Why? Mostly, it came down to the huge initial cost of motor homes (even used, they’re expensive), awful gas mileage, hulking taxes, massive insurance premiums, and scary repair bills. The economics start making sense only if you’re willing to sell your house and live nomadically (see 45.8.4).
16.2 Stay Flexible
□ 16.2.1 Book Off-Season
Try Vail in late spring or Martha’s Vineyard in winter.
□ 16.2.2 Shop for Rooms Midweek
Weekend shoppers pay higher prices, so shop on weekdays.
□ 16.2.3 Vacation in Recessions
Bargains abound whenever the economy hits rough patches. Save your biggest trips for low spots in the destination’s business cycle.
□ 16.2.4 Skip Special Events
Hotels fill up fast for conventions, college reunions, or sporting events. Check local websites to see whether you’re scheduled to visit at a busy time when prices are high. If so, change your dates.
□ 16.2.5 Subscribe to Travel Alerts
If you request, many travel sites will send you emails about the best last second deals to your favorite destinations, including Orbitz.com, Hotwire.com, and Priceline.com.
□ 16.2.6 Book Outliers
Stay away from city centers and save on room rates and taxes.
□ 16.2.7 Stay Flexible on Destinations
Pick vacation spots based upon low prices.
□ 16.2.8 Stay Flexible on Quality Levels
If you only need a bunk for the night, a two-star place works fine.
□ 16.2.9 Consider Boutiques
Smaller hotels offer great values, but they can’t afford to list on major travel sites. Find them at HotelSweep.com.
□ 16.2.10 Share Rooms
You can save if you’re flexible about the number of sleepers per room. A suite or rollaway bed costs much less than another room.
□ 16.2.11 Avoid Weekends
Prices jump on weekends, so favor alternatives to hotels on Friday and Saturday nights (see 16.1).
16.3 Research Online, but Haggle With the Front Desk
Many online sites help you shop hotel prices, including Expedia.com, Hotwire.com, and Orbitz.com, to name a few. Basically, these sites are middlemen that collect fees from hotels for each referral. When you call the hotel’s front desk directly, you often get lower prices. (Don’t bother with a 1-800 reservations number, because the operators don’t have the power to deal that on-site employees do.) Choose from among these openers.
□ 16.3.1 “Are Any Group Discounts Offered?”
Most hotels offer discounts to AAA or AARP members, members of the military, government employees, alumni groups, seniors, students, and others.
□ 16.3.2 “Will You Match Your Competitor’s Price?”
Obtain a low quote from a hotel in which you have less interest and see whether your preferred hotel will match that price.
□ 16.3.3 “Can I Get a Lower Rate With Your Loyalty Program?”
If you’re not already a member, ask to join.
□ 16.3.4 “What Does Your Least Expensive Room Cost?”
Many hotels have problematic rooms that they rent out for less, including rooms with dormers, poor views, or elevator noise. Ask about “suite connector” rooms, where hotels open the sitting areas of unsold suites and rent them out for cheap.
□ 16.3.5 “What if I Changed Dates or Stayed an Extra Night?”
Work some alternative scenarios into the negotiations.
□ 16.3.6 “May I Speak With Your Manager, Please?”
Sometimes the desk clerk lacks authority to bargain. If so, climb up the next rung of the ladder.
□ 16.3.7 “Help! I’m too Shy to Haggle!”
If so, visit HotelsCombined.com, an aggregator that searches all major travel sites, plus the websites of individual hotels. You won’t get as good a rate as you would at the front desk, but you might undercut the travel sites.
16.4 Research at Hotwire, but Bid at Priceline
First, price hotels at Hotwire.com. Note the cheapest option at your desired quality level, as shown by the assigned number of stars. Second, go to Priceline.com and bid at least 20 percent below the lowest Hotwire price. If your bid wins, you know you’ve scored a great price. If your bid fails, you can rebid immediately by making a small change to your criteria (such as a new star level or location). Otherwise, the system locks you out for 24 hours, and you’re left to making slightly higher bids until at last you succeed.
16.5 Reserve Early, Revisit Before the Cancel Deadline
Book a good price that allows you a penalty-free cancellation at least 48 hours before arrival. Mark the cancel deadline on your calendar. Right before time expires, repeat strategy no. 16.3 or 16.4 to see if any better deals have emerged. If you find a lower price, lock it in and cancel the reservation.
16.6 Look for Special Offers and Deal Sweeteners
This takes more time, but sometimes yields lower rates. On a recent car trip, we picked up hotel coupon books at rest areas as we neared our nightly stops. Our savings averaged $35 per room.
- Coupons and codes
- Group discounts
- Volume discounts
- Cash Payment discounts
- Deal-a-Day websites
- Loyalty programs
- Credit card rewards
- Discounted gift cards
16.7 Book at the Last Second
As night falls and vacancies remain, rates plummet. Play a friendly game of chicken with hotels by not booking before 6:00 p.m. This game isn’t for the faint of heart, however, because you risk a night without a room. Have in place a solid backup plan, such as one of the hotel alternatives in 16.1. Casually mentioning your backup at the front desk might help, as in something subtle like “Hey there. We were on our way to the campground on Highway 79 when we noticed your vacancy sign—what’s your best price for a room tonight?”
16.8 Avoid Price Gouges
Like other businesses, hotels charge fees and add-ons. Know these usual suspects and dodge them whenever possible:
- Mini bars
- Gift shops
- Phone charges
- In-Room movies
- Parking fees
- Excessive lodging taxes
- Vending machines
- Bottled water in room
- Wi-Fi charges
- Room service
- Resort fees
16.9 Follow Up
□ 16.9.1 Check for Belongings
Save yourself the cost of replacing personal items.
□ 16.9.2 Check the Bill
Study it carefully before leaving. With hotels, billing mistakes are common and difficult to fix once you leave the premises.